Center for Truth and Justice (“CFTJ”) is a US-based nonprofit organization working to uncover the truth in conflict zones and enhance accountability through in-depth recorded interviews with survivors of human rights abuses, conducted by legal practitioners. The mission of CFTJ is to be a living memorial to crimes against humanity. By being a permanent home for testimonials, CFTJ serves to make eyewitness accounts available for study, education and legal action in order to foster education, empathy, justice and change.
While safeguarding the confidentiality of our witnesses, we synthesize their testimony in public reports, which serve as a resource to legal and academic practitioners. Meanwhile, the evidence is available to all those who aim to pursue justice through legal action and education.
In an effort to bring war crimes committed in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia to the forefront, and to seek justice in international courts and tribunals, CFTJ, at its inception in November of 2020, adopted a set of guidelines (“Guidelines”) to collect, handle, preserve and share evidence in accordance with international law. The Guidelines include professional and ethical conduct in the identification of witnesses, collection and preservation of testimonial evidence with the aim of making such evidence admissible in court proceedings. The purpose of this Guideline is to increase the likelihood that the collected testimonial evidence, together with exhibits of digital footage and photographs, will be useful for justice and accountability. This Guideline will serve as a resource to practitioners as well as a training and teaching tool.
CFTJ has considered, relied on and incorporated the following sources: Rules of Evidence, the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source and those developed jointly by Eurojust, the EU Network for investigation and prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes (‘Genocide Network’) and the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
CFTJ conducts Law Clinics which include a series of seminars and hands-on practice on how to collect testimonial evidence. The Law Clinics are composed of law students and young lawyers in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh who are interviewed and selected for a 10-month long program. The students are paired and matched with a practicing lawyer, a Team Leader, who closely reviews their work, guides them and assists to ensure the collection of evidence is done pursuant to the guidelines.
During the summer months, CFTJ conducts workshops and information sessions for various law schools in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to explain the Law Clinic and invite students to apply. Those who apply must provide a resume and a letter of intent. CFTJ’s Education Committee, after filtering the applications, interviews every candidate to enquire about the student’s motivation, commitment and ability to learn how to problem solve. The selection process takes about two months. Once they are selected, students are paired up and then matched with a Team Leader. The relationship between the pair of students and their Team Leader is crucial to the success of the team’s ability to collect testimonial evidence according to the Guidelines. Team Leaders prepare their students both before and after testimonies are collected. The evidence is reviewed and used as a teaching tool to point out the mistakes or problems in practicing the Guidelines.
It is imperative that the investigators take all measures to prevent or minimize the negative consequences, including retraumatization or any type of harm to the witness and the community they represent. These considerations include security, physical and psychological well-being and the privacy of the witness during the documentation process.
The investigators should also not place themselves in harm’s way in trying to secure testimonial evidence. Any activities that expose witnesses, their family members, their community or the investigators to any risk of harm should not be undertaken. This entails training and selecting staff to ensure professional standards of conduct, obtaining informed consent, protecting sources of information, respecting confidentiality, setting up referral support systems for witnesses, as well as providing counseling and therapy services for investigators and staff.
To minimize harm to the witness and their community and to preserve the evidence for purposes of admissibility, the number of people handling the evidence must be limited. The suggested number of investigators involved in recording testimonial evidence is no more than two (2) persons per witness. However, considering that this is a teaching program, a mentor may also accompany the investigators to meet with the witness. This is done in an effort to allow the witness to feel comfortable with the investigators, respect their privacy and establish trust. Additionally, limiting the number of people that handle the evidence, creates a clear chain of custody and allows for authenticity of the evidence by the correlating investigators.
The first step is contacting a potential witness. During the first contact, it is imperative that the witness understands the purpose of the contact, the purpose of CFTJ and the purpose of their testimony. The investigator must not use undue pressure to secure a witness, but rather explain why their testimony is important and what it could be used for in the future. A witness must agree to meet with investigators voluntarily, willingly and knowingly. Once consent is achieved, a time and location is designated to meet. CFTJ encourages investigators to meet with witnesses at the witness’s own home or workplace and not in a designated office or environment that is not indicative of their current living conditions.
The investigator must also explain that the witness must be alone and not surrounded by friends, family or neighbors when being interviewed. This is for purposes of confidentiality and to ensure that the testimony is credible and reliable. The presence of others in the room will inadvertently influence the witness and the way they tell their story. This must be avoided.
Witnesses under the age of 18 are not to be interviewed. If there is a critical need for the testimony of a minor, the minor’s parent(s) must agree and consent. If the witness is under the age of 18, specific guidelines must be adhered to in order to establish that the minor is competent, understands the proceedings, understands the difference between a truth and a lie and can give an accurate account of events.
If an investigator has a relationship with a witness (I.E., relatives, friends, knowledge through reputation), the investigator must not conduct that interview but rather pass on the information to CFTJ for a new investigator to be assigned.
During the first contact, whether in person or telephonically, the investigator is to ask general questions to verify that the potential witness falls into a designated category of interest: victim of war crimes; displaced peoples; eye-witness to war crimes; prisoner of war; a family member of a loved one who is missing in action; a family member of deceased whose body was violated and/or mutilated; member of a church that was targeted; community leaders that represent their countrymen who were all displaced; among others.
This initial contact is documented in Form #1 by the investigator making the call. Preserving the evidence and investigation collection protocols apply to both pre-collection and post-collection evidence.
Once a witness has been identified, an investigator fills out the form Key Card, which has its own unique number to be used to refer to the witness to protect the identity of the witness. This is the Key Card Number of the witness. A Key Card Number is a confidential and unique number assigned to a witness so that the witness’s actual name is never used. Only the Key Card shows the witness’s name and corresponding number. The Key Card must be kept confidential and never referred to unless necessary for identification purposes. The Key Card Number is what will be used throughout the investigation of the case as referenced in each form.
Investigators must also, begin a Log Activity Sheet and register every activity related to the gathering of evidence. All logs must specify the date and the name of the investigators carrying out the activity with a brief description of the activity.
Meeting the Witness to Record their Testimony
Investigators must spend a substantial period of time with the witness, in their environment where the interview is to take place to get to know them, as well as introduce the organization and its purpose. This creates trust and a working relationship. Prior to recording the investigators must inform the witness of the purpose and content of the investigation, the meaning of confidentiality and how it applies, the procedure, use and disclosure of information, and the risks and benefits of participation. Witnesses will have many questions, be prepared to be forthcoming and honest with them.
Before Beginning the Interview
Recording the Testimony
It is important to gather contact information from the witness in case they are needed for further investigation by other institutions or to testify. Investigators must have all contact information of the witness, including phone numbers and social media of their relatives in order to be able to track them down in the future in case they have moved or are displaced.
The witness must be given the relevant information for the witness to stay in touch with CFTJ. Investigators can share their designated CFTJ phone number with the witness and encourage them to stay in touch if they remember anything more or have any questions.
At the end of the interview, the witness is provided with a Witness Participation Certificate and a Humanitarian Support List, which is a list of humanitarian aid organizations that can provide the witness with aid, counseling, guidance, support and assistance.
All recordings, scanned documents, scanned photographs and forms must be uploaded to the designated secure folder. Once the testimony has been secured and uploaded, and all activities and exhibits have been logged and uploaded, the Envelope with all of the corresponding documentation must be secured with CFTJ.
The evidence may be shared only by the approval of CFTJ after the requesting party has been vetted, after they have signed a confidentiality agreement and after CFTJ has verified that the evidence will be used for its intended purpose pursuant to the consent forms signed by the witnesses.
CFTJ’s Guidelines were formulated to ensure that CFTJ investigators are trained to follow international evidence collection and preservation guidelines, be objective and impartial, kind, sensitive, respectful, inclusive, professional, ethical, and capable of discerning bias and speculation, including intrinsic bias, when conducting an investigation.
If you want more information or access to the testimonial evidence CFTJ has gathered, please contact us and be prepared to provide us with a letter of intent.